This review contains potential spoilers for all previous volumes in A Song of Ice and Fire.
A Feast for Crows is widely, and perhaps unfairly, regarded as the weakest entry to date in George R. R. Martin’s epic A Song of Ice and Fire. Much of the criticism it has drawn relates to Martin’s decision to split one intended volume (which would have been A Dance with Dragons) into two books, resulting in not only a publishing delay but more importantly the complete absence in this volume of several characters beloved by fans, and thus no development of the plot as it concerns their stories. Removed from the context of the wait endured by fans, however, A Feast for Crows can be read as the deep breath following A Storm of Swords and a beautifully written bridge to the imminent A Dance with Dragons.
In the context of its time
I first read A Feast for Crows in late 2005, and I recall being disappointed. I waited a long time to see the fate of my favorite characters (especially after the insanity of A Storm of Swords) and then I didn’t get to see those characters at all. The experience is much different when the release of A Dance with Dragons is literally days away. The impatience to see movement in key plot lines is tempered by the certainty that very soon I will, and it becomes easier to appreciate the book on its merits, rather than criticize it for what it lacks. I’m not suggesting that the context should have been ignored by earlier reviewers (I’m certain that my review of A Dance with Dragons won’t ignore such context), but now it is possible to set those issues aside.
The War of the Five Kings is at an end, with contenders for the throne dead or isolated from the center of power at King’s Landing. Tommen Baratheon, Joffrey’s younger brother, now rules effectively unopposed under the influence of his mother, Queen Regent Cersei Lannister. Having acquired the power she has schemed to obtain, Cersei struggles with the reality of government as well as the distrust of Margaery Tyrell, Tommen’s wife. Cersei’s growing paranoia is not wholly misplaced, as the powerful Martells initiate their plan for revenge against the Lannisters. Yet Cersei cannot rely on her brother and ex-lover Jaime, the Kingslayer, who is reconsidering his loyalties and the value of his honor.
Meanwhile, Arya Stark has taken passage across the Narrow Sea and started training with an enigmatic group of assassins known as the Faceless Men. Her sister Sansa remains hidden at the Eyrie under the “protection” of Petyr Baelish, who may be the most ruthless player in the game of thrones. She is hunted by Brienne of Tarth, who has promised Catelyn Stark the safe return of her daughters.
The problem with setting a high standard
A Storm of Swords was always going to be a tough act to follow. The intensity and drama of the conclusion to that book simply cannot be maintained. Indeed there is a need for the story to take a breath. As a result there aren’t any heart-rending and game-changing sequences like Tyrion’s escape, the Red Wedding, or the revelations at the Eyrie in A Feast for Crows. It is fair to say there is a lull in the action, but there are several powerful dramatic beats, and a central conflict (involving the Lannister siblings) that reaches a somewhat surprising resolution.
If you would go west, you must go east
It is impossible to ignore, however, the fact that the broader struggles of A Song of Ice and Fire, and what most would view as its central plot line, are put on hold. An installment in a series can’t really afford to set aside the major conflict, even if it is a split volume. Martin is fortunate that the quality of his work generates sufficient goodwill for readers to push through, and he clearly needed some space to maneuver several of his main players into the emotional and physical places he needs them to be. A Feast for Crows is a necessary bridge to the rest of the series. Consider especially the time that is needed for Arya and Sansa’s “training” before they can become effective players in the remainder of A Song of Ice and Fire.
An unfair reputation
A Feast for Crows has worn the mantle of the weakest entry in A Song of Ice and Fire. It certainly has been the most disappointing for fans, particularly at the time of its release. Yet this is the book that truly sees the transformation of fan favorite Jaime Lannister into a character that readers can enjoy and sympathize with. It is the book that sees Littlefinger outed as a very dangerous player in the game of thrones. It is the book that brings into focus the role of the dominant religion in the Seven Kingdoms.
Why should you read this book?
As I’ve said, A Feast for Crows is the necessary bridge into what remains of A Song of Ice and Fire. It is the calm both after and (undoubtedly) before the storm that brings much of Martin’s purpose into focus.